Bummer: NY Times Green Learns The “Pleasures And Pitfalls” Of Solar

Mostly, the Times writer, Craig Leisher, learns the pitfalls

For our year living in the woods of Maine, I wanted a place where I could see and hear wildlife. Someplace both quiet and remote.

In our part of Maine, quiet and remote means off the electrical grid. Our summer rental cabin had no electricity except for a small generator to power the water pump and a 20-watt solar panel connected to a 12-volt battery powering our laptop and cellphone. The winter rental cabin where we are now has a diesel generator and a battery bank.

Having a diesel rumbling in the background is not the Maine woods experience I wanted. Too noisy. Too smelly. Too OPEC.

That actually sounds like a good idea, and, as an environmentalist myself, I’d want to hear the sounds of nature, too. I love the early mornings on the back deck near a pond running off the Neuse River here in Raleigh, the quiet punctuated with the calls of wildlife. Anyhow, Craig becomes an Internet expert on ….. solar! And

Once in Maine, I found a local expert on solar, asked for a detailed cost estimate, cross-checked it with people who knew solar and drained $6,000 from our savings to install six modules (panels) totaling 1,410 watts of power.

Then the real learning started.

Well, that $6k drop on panels is a wee bit more than Craig might have spent if the cabin was hooked up to the regular power grid, but, again, I do not think solar is a Bad Idea, and it’s much better, in my opinion, to search for solutions to single homes/small groups of homes than the huge solar farms which require large swaths of clear cut land. Alas

I learned that installed capacity is different from actual energy generated. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that solar power production in the ZIP code for our system over the last four months in an average weather year should be 441 kilowatt hours. Our system produced 305 kilowatt hours in those four months – 31 percent less.

and

I learned that energy generated is not the same as energy that can be used. When the solar panels convert photons to electrons, it’s DC power, but we need AC power. The DC power is stored in a large battery bank, and an inverter switches it to AC, losing about 23 percent of the power generated in the process.

and finally

The bottom line is that our solar production provides only 46 percent of what we need, and what we need is minimal.

Therefore, Craig runs the diesel generator a bit. Because solar is not ready for prime-time, even if he doubled the number of panels. But, again, he is on to something, namely, aim solar for personal ownership and usage.

Crossed at Pirate’s Cove. Follow me on Twitter @WilliamTeach.

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